- Posted December 6, 2013 by
Suriname celebrates Children’s Day without controversial blackfaced Zwarte Piet
In Suriname, December 5th marks Kinderdag, known in English as Children’s Day. This festive day for children has its origins in the Dutch holiday of Sinterklaas – also celebrated on the 5th of December in the Netherlands. The holiday is thus a remnant tradition of the Dutch who colonized Suriname for nearly three centuries. The celebration of Sinterklaas was renamed Kinderdag in the early 1980s after the military coup of Desi Bouterse. Similar to Santa Claus, Sinterklaas rewards children who have been good with gifts and candy, with the assistance of Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas’ black-faced help. The debate to alter the appearance of Zwarte Piet reached its peak this year in the Netherlands, with several Facebook pages calling the use of Zwarte Piet to be racist and others demanding the tradition to remain intact.
While the tradition remains unaltered in the Netherlands, schools in Suriname have opted to remove Zwarte Piet entirely from their Kinderdag celebration. At the Mohamed Amanullah Taus School in Leiding, Suriname neither Sinterklaas nor Zwarte Piet made an appearance to celebrate Kinderdag with the students. Instead, the students enjoyed a leisurely day of school with games, theatre and food. Staff members each have their own take on the removal of Zwarte Piet.
“It’s a form of discrimination. It’s not a good idea. It gives people a bad feeling,” says 3rd-grade teacher Unise Kartonacli. She believes that use of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet promotes the idea that those who are black are inferior and being white is better.
Art teacher Irene Rijken-Simson says there is clear discrimination with the Sinterklaas celebration. “I was recently watching a movie about Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet entered a house and were received separately. Zwarte Piet stood in a corner with a heavy bag of gifts and no one looked at him. Sinterklaas received a separate chair and was served, but Zwarte Piet did not receive anything. It was as if he did not even exist. You can clearly see the discrimination. The white one is received well and gets a beautiful chair, while the black one has to carry the heavy load of gifts. He does not even get to give the gifts; he has to give it to Sinterklaas first who distributes the gifts. It’s like the slave trade, but we’re past that point of time!” She continues to note that “children do not realize the discrimination now. They like Kinderdag. They get gifts from Sinterklaas. But when they grow up, they realize what Zwarte Piet truly symbolizes.”
Substitute teacher Juanita Promes-van Aampt says that Zwarte Piet is used as a slave to serve Sinterklaas. “Zwarte Piet is told to put children who have behaved badly in a bag, so children are terrified of him. Meanwhile, Sinterklaas gives children gifts. So, white is perceived as good, while black is perceived as bad.”
Sandra Sordam who teaches writing to 1st- and 2nd-grade children does not believe that the Sinterklaas celebration should be abolished in the schools. “It can continue, but without the use of Zwarte Piet. There are so many other things that could replace Zwarte Piet.”
As in the Netherlands, opinions vary and not everyone in Suriname supports changing the tradition to remove Zwarte Piet.
The Vice Principal of the school, Marinie Kromopawiro, says that the “celebration of Sinterklaas remains a part of the Surinamese people. It should be continued. I do not view this celebration to be discriminatory.” She adds that her school is a public school with children of different races and that all sorts of cultural holidays are commemorated at her school. “If it’s been a tradition for centuries, why should we all of a sudden get rid of the Sinterklaas celebration or adjust it? The way Kinderdag is celebrated now is boring. Before, children responded enthusiastically; they ran after Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas who visited the classrooms as candy would be distributed.”
Even the children of the Mohamed Amanullah Taus School expressed their disappointment that Zwarte Piet was not present at their school’s Kinderdag celebration: “We’ve dressed up as funny clowns as a substitute for Zwarte Piet.”
While the adults reflect on the racist elements of Zwarte Piet, Surinamese children enjoy a day of children’s activities, gifts and treats as they are placed in the spotlight on their special Kinderdag. Each year, Toy-Store Nikita organizes a free-for-all event in Paramaribo to commemorate Kinderdag with jumping castles, games and an opportunity for parents to buy toys for their children. While Sinterklaas makes an appearance to hand out gifts to the kids, Zwarte Piet remains absent, deliberately. Storeowner Lamara Frangie-Sowma says that she began organizing the special Kinderdag event ten years ago, but was encouraged to alter the celebration to eliminate Zwarte Piet approximately five years ago.
“In addition to this Kinderdag event, we have also been delivering presents to children at schools in rural areas for the past 5 years. We are not using Zwarte Piet anymore because kids would crawl underneath the tables. That is my main reason for changing it. I do not want kids to be scared. I just want them to be happy, because it’s their day. Now that I changed it to Disney figures, bears and pandas, the kids come greeting them. You have to see them. They’re crying and shaking as if they are meeting celebrities!”
While the debate in Suriname’s former colonial power the Netherlands will continue in the coming years, Suriname has made it clear that Zwarte Piet is no longer a part of their day to pamper their children.
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